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A Map Salem Doesn't Want You to See

Is Portland the reason Sherman County has one of the highest cancer rates in the nation? 

Entry 15:  February 14, 2016.  

Sometimes a map is great for improving one's perspective. Residents of Portland, Oregon are upset about recently discovered high levels of arsenic and cadmium at several hotspots in the city, some located near artisan glass manufacturers using the toxic metals to color their glass. As a cancer survivor, I too am angry at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for its pro-business attitude that values corporate profits far above human health, even though corporations don't get cancer. 

While I care deeply about the situation and want the DEQ to serve the public's interest first and businesses' second, I found something startling that puts Portland's problem into a wider perspective. My natural suspicion was that cancer rates in Portland would be the highest in the state, owing to the greater concentration of industry, automobiles, and their pollution. I was wrong. Here is a map of cancer incidence (all types and all races) in Oregon showing how cancer rates vary by county.

Figure 1.  Oregon cancer rates by county, showing Boardman coal-fired power plant and Arlington landfill sites

The map comes from the National Cancer Institute website and one can easily generate a map for any state and most cancer types, categorized by race and sex if desired. The tri-county Portland metro area (Washington, Clackamas, and Multnomah counties) has an average annual incidence rate of 445 cases per 100,000 population. That's slightly below the national average of 454. The average rate for Sherman (dark red), Gilliam, and Morrow counties (from left to right above, with Portland General Electric's Boardman coal plant in Morrow County and Arlington's Columbia Ridge Landfill in Gilliam, serving Portland) is 540 cases per 100,000. That's 21 percent higher than Portland. Sherman County's rate of 587 is an atrocious 32% higher and ranks as the 14th highest of 2,919 US counties with reported data. 

While the outrage in Portland over arsenic and cadmium is certainly justifiable, there should be even greater outrage about the situation in Morrow, Gilliam, and Sherman counties. The coal plant (slated for closure in 2020) and landfill deserve careful scrutiny to find out if they are causing these high cancer rates. While the lack of regulation of arsenic and cadmium is troubling, our state authorities need to devote even more attention to understanding and doing something about cancer rates in the rural counties east of us, especially if Portland is exporting its cancer risk there along with its solid waste and coal-fired power emissions. Note: It may not be only Oregon's problem. The Roosevelt Landfill, of similar size, is located in Washington just across the Columbia from Arlington. It handles waste from all over Washington. 

The evidence that Portland could be the reason for these rates is admittedly circumstantial.  But the high rates in these rural counties are not.  I have sent a letter to Oregon's state epidemiologist asking whether this merits concern and will post an update on her response.  

Every time we in Portland throw out the trash, turn on a light, or charge our iPhones, we should thank the residents of the counties downwind from Boardman. If they are giving their lives for us to have our electricity and garbage service, will we do anything for them in return?  

Chris Carvalho has a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a photographer and blogger on public policy, environmental, and conservation topics.

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